With the war in Ukraine now entering its tenth month, the two sides are locked in a battle of attrition that could set the stage for further escalation in late winter.
Many observers believe that Ukraine benefits from the current standoff, allowing it to obtain more sophisticated weapons from the West and prepare to launch new retaliatory strikes.
In Russia, there is growing frustration among hardliners over what they see as President Vladimir Putin’s indecisiveness and lack of a clear strategy.
Military analysts are pointing out that with the freezing of the ground, the fighting may intensify again. Many point to the Russian-occupied territories in the Ukrainian south as the most likely location for Kyiv’s next counterattack.
“The ground needs to be properly frozen before vehicles can move more freely,” former British tank commander Justin Crump, who now runs security consultant Sibyline, told The Associated Press.
He stressed that while cold weather makes it more difficult to maintain military operations, this will open up opportunities for greater maneuverability and “as the winter progresses, both sides’ offensive capabilities will increase.”
Crump argued that Ukrainian forces may try to liberate parts of the southern Zaporizhia region and advance towards the strategic Azov Sea port of Mariupol. This would allow Ukraine to cut off the land corridor between Russia and the Crimean peninsula, which it annexed in 2014. Mariupol fell to the Russians in May after a siege of nearly three months, leaving much of the city in ruins.
Ukraine’s independent military analyst Oleh Zhdanov also believes that the Zaporizhia region looks like a likely target for the next Ukrainian counteroffensive.
“Ukrainian artillery and rocket systems have concentrated their attacks there,” he said, stressing that the army has already attacked Russian supply lines in the area, as it did during a counteroffensive in the neighboring Gerson region. , he was driven to the Russian retreat. Name capital.
Russia, which has suffered humiliating military setbacks in recent months, has called in 300,000 reservists to make up for its heavy losses on the battlefield. Putin said last week that half of them are still training at firing ranges away from the front line.
Crump believes, “Russia is trying to develop a better strike force rather than just throwing people on the front lines.” “He thinks he can stay the course and come back next year with bigger numbers and then do something more impressive.”
While working to strengthen its strike force, the Russian military has also attempted to break through various layers of Ukrainian defense in the eastern Donetsk region in trench warfare reminiscent of World War I, which has led to attacks in the past weeks. There has been slow progress.
Crump asserted that the apparent Russian strategy behind the continued attacks on the Ukrainian stronghold of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region is to try to force Kyiv to keep significant numbers of troops there and inflict heavy losses on them.
“It’s about buying time, holding the course of action, about wearing down the Ukrainians,” he says. “They want to reduce the capacity of the Ukrainian Armed Forces … by killing Ukrainian soldiers and destroying Ukrainian equipment faster than Ukraine can replenish them.”
In turn, Ukraine has tried to keep its rival off balance with surprise attacks, some of them even deep into Russia.
In a significant development last week, Moscow acknowledged that Ukraine attacked its strategic air bases more than 500 kilometers (300 miles) east of the border with modified Soviet-made drones. Ukraine has not openly claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the country’s top security official said Kyiv sees the whole of Russia as a reasonable target for such attacks.
Crump said of the Ukrainian attacks, “Whether or not they have a significant effect on Russian military capability, they are certainly undermining Russian morale and creating great confusion.”
Since October, Moscow has specifically used missiles and drones to attack energy facilities and other key infrastructure works in hopes of undermining the will of Ukrainians and forcing Kyiv to negotiate on Russia’s terms. focusing on doing. On Friday, the Russian military launched a new barrage of missiles at several cities, resulting in significant power outages, Ukrainian officials said.
“Attacks on electricity infrastructure are aimed at fueling social tensions and increasing pressure for dialogue,” says Zhdanov. He insisted that the Russian attacks had strengthened Ukraine’s resolve “by creating anger and a desire for revenge”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Russian shelling has destroyed half of his country’s infrastructure, and urged the United States and other Western allies to quickly provide more air defense weapons to counter attacks .
US officials said this week that Washington is about to approve Ukraine’s delivery of a battery of Patriot air defense missile systems, powerful weapons capable of shooting down Russian missiles.
The Kremlin argues that by providing Ukraine with such weapons, training troops and sharing military intelligence, NATO has already effectively become a party to the conflict. He warned Washington that Patriot systems and any US personnel deployed to train Ukrainian troops would be a legitimate target for Russia.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warned last week that the fighting could spiral out of control and turn into “a big war” between the alliance and Russia, reflecting growing concerns about the escalation.
Putin has tried to portray the Russian attacks as a legitimate response to the truck bombing that damaged a bridge linking the Crimean peninsula with Russia in October – which left millions of Ukrainians without electricity, water and heating amid freezing temperatures. left it The Kremlin has blamed Kyiv for the attack.
In a rare admission that his plans for a quick victory have gone awry, Putin said last week that achieving Moscow’s goals in Ukraine could be a “long process” but insisted that Russian military efforts were “steady”. “Were moving forward.”
Russian hardliners scoffed at Putin’s statement.
Igor Strelkov, a former Russian security official who led separatist forces in eastern Ukraine when the conflict began there in 2014, criticized Putin as failing to set clear military goals and mobilize all available resources. And sharply criticized his generals.
“In most units, soldiers and officers do not understand what they are fighting for,” he lamented after a brief visit to the combat zone. “It leads to apathy and saps the fighting spirit.”
Strelkov warned that a prolonged conflict could be “suicidal for the Russian Federation, its government and its elite”.
Viktor Alkanis, a hardliner known for trying to stop the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, warned that Russia could meet the same fate. He recognized that an eventual Russian military defeat in Ukraine would lead to Russia’s “shameful surrender and subsequent breakup”. He argued that the use of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield was “the only way to stop it.”
Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s Security Council chaired by Putin, warned last month that Ukraine’s continued offensive could trigger a nuclear response, in line with the country’s deterrence doctrine, which envisages using such weapons when a The country is at risk from a conventional attack.
Medvedev supported Ukraine’s ambition to liberate more territory, saying “Western powers are pushing the world towards a global war.”
Tatiana Stanovaya, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment think tank who tracks attitudes in the Kremlin and the Russian elite, pointed to a growing sense of hopelessness and despair among Russia’s ruling class.
Members of the elite see the latest Russian military setback as a sign that the country is headed for military defeat, he said.
“Everything is seen as a rapid decline into chaos and even the collapse of the country,” Stanovaya said in a recent analysis.
He noted a growing divide in the ruling elite between those who advocate halting the conflict to allow Russia to recover from its defeat and those who favor sequestration.
“Putin looks like a weakling to both camps in the Russian elite,” he said.
Associated Press writers Danica Kirka in London and Yuras Karmanu in Tallinn, Estonia contributed to this report